God Behind Bars

If I threw open my arms and twirled all around, my fingertips could outline the tree-topped mountains encircling me. It is an ideal place for a retreat center: secluded and picturesque. Instead, it is the state's choice for a maximum-security prison. Far away from public view, the harsh concrete buildings look out of place against these gentle mountains.

Colorful flowers mark the path to the gatehouse. Then the stripping away begins in earnest. It is a gray day every day in this prison. Gray walls, gray floors, and gray ceilings. The gray uniforms worn by the men can fade their faces into obscurity. The blue uniforms of the staff can create the same effect. Holding a gaze is crucial in seeing the person beyond the clothing. A simple "hello" can seem like a subversive act in a place where everyone is defined by role.

As the seventh door clanged shut behind me in this seventh year of my work as a chaplain, I passed two prisoners cleaning the floors. An officer called them to another part of the hallway. As they pulled their mops behind them, I heard them chant in a barely audible tone, "Is master gonna sell us tomorrow?" I made my way to my desk and prayed my usual morning prayer of hope that I would not become so accustomed to this place that I rendered it normal, benign, or the inevitable consequence of criminal behavior.

"James," serving a 12-year sentence on a drug offense, helped to answer my morning prayer. Every time I see him, he has a smile on his face.

"How do you do it, James? How do you stay so happy?" I asked.

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2007
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